No bridge for troubled waters

Ian Anderson July 26 1982

No bridge for troubled waters

Ian Anderson July 26 1982

No bridge for troubled waters

Ian Anderson

They were 30 profoundly troubled men and women who straggled out of the Canadian Labour Congress headquarters last week into the oppressive Ottawa heat. Amid media reports of a new spirit of conciliation between government and labor, the members of the CLC’s executive committee had privately come to the unavoidable conclusion that conciliation was just not possible. Instead, they hoped to keep the talks going with Pierre Trudeau’s government and buy some time—time for their two million members to reach the same conclusion they had reached, that wage controls were a political fix for an ailing Liberal government rather than an economic palliative for the nation. As one leader suggested last week, they are waiting for the moment CLC President Dennis McDermott warned them would inevitably come, when frightened people become angry people.

The CLC’s closed-door meeting had the markings of a quiet turning point for the country. At a moment of economic crisis, neither labor nor government chose to seize the initiative. In cabinet, Labor Minister Charles Caccia argued vainly that Ottawa make some effort, if only a token, to indicate that the federal government sincerely wanted to forge a deal with labor. But Caccia’s advice was drowned out by an increasingly powerful cabinet cabal that believes Liberals can brazen their

way back to popularity by staring down the unions. As one junior minister remarked privately last week, the best thing that could happen to the Liberals today would be an illegal public-sector strike.

Labor is not yet prepared to take the bait. The CLC has striven mightily to rein in its radicals, principally JeanClaude Parrot of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and Pierre Samson, president of the Public Service Alliance

Some in cabinet believe that the Liberals can brazen their way back to popularity by staring down the unions

of Canada, whose belligerent hard-line public statements have almost overshadowed McDermott’s attempts to sound at least flexible. Parrot was almost alone in opposing a second meeting with Trudeau, while moderates will go to almost any length to show their members that all avenues were explored before the situation was abandoned as hopeless. McDermott can accept no form of wage restraint until Ottawa moves to lower interest rates, which the CLC views as the principal villain in the economic drama. Ottawa will not risk lowering interest rates in fear

of the bottom dropping out of the dollar. As union leaders confided last week, the positions are so fundamentally different as to be seemingly impossible to bridge.

The key to any new CLC strategy will be to convince the private-sector unions that the wage control gun now trained on the public sector will soon be turned on them. That will take some months, but the congress views Ottawa’s imposition of the six-per-cent ceiling for public-sector raises as just the start of a national campaign. Nova Scotia has already fallen into line, and British Columbia is expected to follow shortly. Any move by the B.C. Government Employees’ Union to strike when their contract expires July 30 is expected to provide a rallying point around which B.C. Premier Bill Bennett can finally frame an election issue for his shaky Social Credit government. When the premiers meet Aug. 24 in Halifax, the CLC believes that all 10 provincial governments will be adhering to some form of the federal government wage guidelines.

Canadian labor leaders are going through a baffling transition period, argues Kristin Shannon, chairman of the influential Canadian Trend Report. On top of the current government-labor crisis, unions face complex internal contradictions as four generations of workers voice concerns on an array of issues from pensions to the introduction of new technology. Wages have become only one part of the bargaining equation, Shannon reasons, thus it has become impossible to speak with a single powerful voice. Similarly, a radical change has occurred in the age-old adversarial system on which collective bargaining rests. “The old union leader could easily identify his enemy,” Shannon explains. “The current leader has a harder time identifying that enemy because he’s across the table.” And dealing with Japan is impossible from a seat in Toronto, as United Auto Workers discovered when they opened negotiations with Ford Motor Co. of Canada last week. In a chilling opening statement, Ford said that it might pull out of Canada if wage concessions were not forthcoming.

As the union leaders quietly acknowledge, their membership has not come to grips with the fact that the recession is hiding mássive structural changes in the economy. Leaders in the automobile, steel and forest industries do not expect full employment when the recession finally burns its way through. Bennett recently reminded labor leaders in his province that full employment in the forest sector could not be expected until U.S. housing starts hit 1.5 million a year—and no one expects that to occur for several years. Jack Munro, the

Western Canadian director of the International Woodworkers of America, told his CLC compatriots that, for the first time he could remember, members of his union were applying for welfare because their unemployment insurance had run out.

Such dreary facts take a toll on the labor leaders. “No one could know what we feel now,” states Gerard Docquier, Canadian director of the United Steelworkers. “It’s a tragedy for our people.” In July alone, Docquier says, 33,000 steelworkers have applied for unemployment insurance. (This does not include 2,100 workers in Hamilton whom non - union Dofasco plans to lay off early this fall.)Yet wage concessions seem purposeless to him. “We have already in the past four or five years bargained for less than inflation. To go any further down, in my opinion, is debilitating to our economy. It reduces our ability to buy goods, and that is damaging.”

If an opportunity has been lost to bring labor into a national consensus on building a stronger economy, the missing element is trust. Since the labor leaders hold no illusion that Ottawa has a secret economic formula up its sleeve, they view sacrifices by their members alone as futile. And they view themselves as partners, not pawns, in the economic game. The prime minister is now reaping the whirlwind for his years

of neglect of labor.* His July meeting with McDermott was the first in four years, while the cabinet committee on labor relations tends to meet only to consider strike threats, not fence mending. Within the powerful Privy Council Office, the government’s nerve centre, the public servant in charge of labor relations also has the western development fund and emergency planning.

The unfortunate end result to Ottawa’s evolving labor strategy has been to unite the moderate and radical leaders around the one thing they could jointly oppose, wage controls. At the same time, the moderate leaders feel they have not been given any reason to stick their necks out and argue for voluntary restraint. With neither side apparently prepared to rise above the myopic goals of survival politics, Canadians can expect a month or two of shadow-dancing before the autumn fireworks. The only thing that might resume a serious search for mutually acceptable solutions would be an even steeper downturn in the economy, one that would scare the pride out of everyone. Until then, the charade continues.

*At week’s end a Gallup poll, taken early last month, showed Trudeau’s popularity at an all-time low of 28 per cent. His previous nadir came in February when only 30 per cent of the public approved of his performance as prime minister. His highest score, in September, 1980, was 50.